7 min read
The Tragedy of OceanGate - 20,000 Memes Under the Sea

Henry Choisser

With the melodramatic saga of the Titan submarine going to curtains, it's time to take stock of everything that’s happened, and look at some of the possible ramifications of the doomed voyage’s untimely end. Foremost on the mind of many is the ballooning cost of the international rescue operation that went on for days even after the U.S. Navy informed the Coast Guard it had evidence the sub imploded midway through its voyage to visit the Titanic wreckage. 

Should millions of dollars in cost be absorbed by the government when those onboard the submarine willingly paid OceanGate to descend more than 2 miles below the murky depths in an uncertified and openly experimental vessel? Will this incident put a damper on the burgeoning luxury adventure tourism industry - such as VirginGalactic’s suborbital trips that just started launching at the end of June? And finally, what can we make of the public reaction to the soap opera that surrounded the search efforts - in particular, the vast quantity of memes and other social media content that turned the tragedy into entertainment and often seemed to relish in the demise of those onboard.          

The five members on the fateful journey were OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, Action Aviation Chairman Hamish Harding, one of Pakistan’s richest business moguls Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, as well as Paul-Henri Nargeolet who made much of his fortune retrieving and selling thousands of artifacts from the very same storied wreckage. Although it is difficult to get verifiable estimations of the late crew’s net worth, the collective value is definitively in excess of $1 billion (if not a few times over). If nothing else, each ticket on the Titan was reportedly sold for $250,000 dollars - demonstrating a minimum level of exorbitance. This monetary extravagance may have been a major catalyst for the public excoriation that started before families even knew the fate of their loved ones, and continued thereafter.          

The overflow of schadenfreude - joy from the suffering of others, especially in the tearing down of one’s perceived social superiors - has been intense. From almost the onset of public coverage of the rescue, memes were deriding everything from the use of a logitech control to pilot the sub, ziploc bags for toilets, to simple gallows humor about the Titanic taking the lives of more rich people over a century after its original sinking.

There are a couple of explanations for the vitriolic online reaction to the Titan tragedy. As psychologist Pamela B. Rutledge explains, “people also like to see wealthy people get pulled off their pedestals. When rich and privileged people run into trouble or behave badly and get caught, we feel better because it shows that underneath it all, they are normal and mortal, cracking the veneer of privilege. It makes us feel less inferior.” She further elaborates that “Social media…remove[s] accountability. The posts you see are milking the Titan tragedy and reflect personal attention-seeking… Attention is a form of power. Getting views makes people feel special and important and, with enough followers, can even generate income. There is no incentive to be reasonable or empathetic. Social media creates a reward-based system that encourages the outrageous and extreme.”          

Additionally, these already skewed incentive structures for content creation were dialed up to 11 by a brewing discontent with the ultra wealthy among the entire American populace - a frustration that is brimming among the prime demographic of social media users. A whopping 50% of 18-29 year old Americans hold a distinctly negative view of billionaires and believe that they are a bad thing for the country. People in the United States, especially young ones, are becoming increasingly reactive to the exponentially growing wealth disparity in the country.          

Yotam Ophir, head of the Media Effects, Misinformation and Extremism (MEME) lab at the University of Buffalo suggested taking the excesses of social media mockery with a grain of salt. "We are all performing online, right? We often have kind of different personalities that we project," he said. "Just the fact that somebody clicked on share or retweeted a joke about the incident, I wouldn't infer from it that they are really truly happy about somebody else's tragedy. I think they find that there's the kind of opportunity to maybe perform their social identity, and part of their social identity is often resisting, again, the deep inequalities in wealth." Nonetheless, these grievances are based on real world issues that are only getting worse, not better.

Looking forward, the public response to this incident may serve as a bellwether for unresolved and rising economic divisions. That is not to say the masses are ready to eat the rich, but the building resentment certainly has already been a force at play in recent domestic politics. All one needs to look at is the outsider politics and anti-establishmentism that helped propel Donald Trump into the White House in 2016 and his famous slogan “drain the swamp”. If nothing else, public discontent with economic inequality has already manifested itself in domestic politics, and remains an unresolved if not further exacerbated issue.

However, it was perhaps the store bought parts, Macgyvered solutions, and Titan’s completely experimental design that played the largest role in driving public mockery. The simplest thought experiment that leads me to this conclusion involves the recently inaugurated VirginGalactic space plane. If the VSS Unity rocket plane were to erupt into a fireball on its 20th launch, carrying with it Richard Bransson (VirginGalactic’s founder), other space entrepreneurs and a 19 year old boy, I highly doubt the public reaction would be nearly as unempathetic and derisive. 

For some, there is an element of “what did you expect?” when hearing about the complete disregard for industry standards and the lack of any certification whatsoever. This feeling only intensified when the public became aware of lawsuits from 2018 claiming OceanGate ignored major safety concerns raised by the engineer they hired to conduct a safety review - before ultimately firing him for raising those concerns in an internal report. And all (or should I say “none”) of this for a ship intended to dive more than two miles below the surface of the ocean.          

What’s more, at a depth of 12,500 feet, the force of water crushing the submarine was approximately 6,500 pounds per square inch (psi). Conversely, the most intense dynamic pressure experienced by a rocket during launch (known as Max-Q) is only 4.7 psi above normal atmospheric pressure, and once in space the habitat only needs to withstand an outward pressure of 14.7 psi. Even though there are multiple orders of magnitude in difference between the pressure related stress experienced by the Titan versus any vessel used for space tourism, craft like SpaceX’s Starship, or those of Blue Origin and VirginGalactic have been in rigorous development for decades in contrast with the Titan’s unregulated and rushed development timeline.          

Despite the deluge of online theories, armchair materials science experts, and criticisms of the Titan’s non-spherical design, the most plausible explanation I have encountered came from Alfred McLaren, a retired Navy submarine captain who has spent more than half a decade underwater. According to him, It wasn’t the carbon fiber or the plexiglass that failed individually. It was the use of three different materials in one system: carbon fiber, titanium, and plexiglass. He points out that “they have different coefficients of expansion and compression… You make repeated cycles in depth, of course you’re gonna work that seal [between pieces of the hull] loose." In a separate interview with The New York Times McLaren explained that “At that depth, you could have a leak that’s not much bigger than a diameter of one of your hairs and you would be dead within a fraction of a second… They really wouldn’t have even known they would have died, they would have been dead before they knew it.”    

As summarized by reporter David Pogue who joined OceanGate for a dive in 2022, “I should not have been reassured by the Titan’s 20 successful dives to the seafloor. I should have been terrified. Each dive brought the sub closer to destruction.” However, he concludes that “Rush was [not] a con man. He genuinely believed in his design — enough to trust it with his own life many times over.” Unfortunately, faith cannot compensate for flawed engineering. Yet, consumer faith will ultimately be a factor in the success of other emerging forms of luxury adventure tourism related to deep sea or orbital exploration.

That being said, any chilling effects on the industry are likely to be muted by a number of factors. The simplest being that many of the very individuals capable of booking $450,000 flights on VirginGalactic, or multimillion dollar flights with SpaceX are motivated by thrill seeking agendas, which may only enhance the excitement and psychological reward of partaking in such perceived risky activities. Point and case - Hamish Harding was already in the Guinness Book of World Records for other adventure and exploration related endeavors before he joined the Titan for its final descent.                

The second leading factor is that most of the tickets sold for space tourists are for future trips that will occur after hundreds of other launches occur, providing observable reassurance for passengers and separation from the June incident to reduce their worries. VirginGalactic has an apparent waitlist of 800 people as of a month ago, and the passenger of Starship’s second commercial voyage around the moon, Dennis Tito, said he expects SpaceX will complete “hundreds of Starship flights before he and [his wife] Akiko fly.” Since retiring, he said, he’s been “looking for something to do. I’ve been following SpaceX almost on a daily basis, watching YouTube for the last 5 years, and I could see that there was an opportunity,” Tito said. Moreover, the rigorous standards of engineering and regulation that go into aerospace products provides a level of assurance against accidents that is absent in an unlicensed and uncertified submarine operating in international waters with no regulatory body in sight.     

As for the various agencies and international organizations that participated in the rescue search, the eventual bill will certainly extend into the millions of dollars, and has already been pegged at $1.2 million by a variety of sources. Many people expressed a frustration with footing the costs for extravagantly wealthy people who willingly went to the bottom of the ocean in an experimental vessel. While many of the participants in the search may seek and ultimately find reimbursements for their efforts, there is one organization that is legally prohibited from seeking coverage of financial costs involved in a rescue operation - the U.S. Coast Guard - and it was probably the actor responsible for the largest portion of the bill. Bound by federal law, the Coast guard, and by extension the American public will be the ones to catch the tab.          

Thanks to the ephemeral attention span of American media, it is hard to predict whether the Titan tragedy will be remembered in the collective conscience or swept away by the tides of the 24 hour news cycle. Perhaps criticisms of the (arguably minor) cost of the search will be used as a political cudgel, and on the international stage there may even become greater regulation in the submarine industry. However, it is unlikely that any lessons learned from this event, or changes in policy will recognize or attempt to resolve the economic inequality and divisions that drove a subsect of the public to outrage and ridicule.          

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